Leftovers: Some post-Thanksgiving thoughts on words

Leftovers—most refrigerators are full of them today in the U.S.

Yesterday, we and our family and friends feasted on turkey and all the fixin’s. Today we’re left to contemplate the deep questions of life. Like, does putting stuffing between two pieces of bread make it a sandwich? Can pumpkin pie count as a vegetable? And why didn’t Aunt Millie take that green bean casserole home with her?

Leftovers represent choices

The good thing about having leftovers is it means you exercised some restraint at your Thanksgiving dinner. You may have eaten until you were full, waited an hour and then eaten some more. But you didn’t eat everything. You made choices.

Making choices is a good discipline for writers, too. No matter what you’re writing, you can’t put everything in.

This isn’t just an issue of space. Even in the vastness of the internet, where no publishing costs or physical limits constrain us, it’s best to serve up your ideas in bite-sized chunks.

The human stomach may expand when we eat a big meal, but the mind can really only handle two or three ideas at a time. Try to shovel in more than that and your audience will shut down. And that’s true whether your audience is reading or listening, but of course the readers have the luxury of re-reading, highlighting key passages, of—to stretch the Thanksgiving analogy—digesting your ideas over an extended period of time.

I once had a client hire me to write newspaper advertisements for his cause. (Quaint, isn’t it?) He had written the first ad himself and while he made solid arguments, it looked like something your crazy uncle would have come up with. And you practically needed a magnifying glass to read it all—even though the client had bought a full page of the newspaper. That’s a lot of words.

Needless to say, the ads I wrote were much more concise. I focused each on only one of the issues he’d raised in the mega-ad. And (regular readers will not be surprised) I told stories to illustrate the impact the issue in question had on people like the newspaper’s readers.

At first, this confused the client: What about the other issues? You can’t leave them out—they’re important. I reminded him that he’d bought a series of ads, and had many more weeks in which to lay out his case for each issue. I wrote six ads, focused on six issues, and he ran them in rotation for a year or so.

So don’t stuff your writing full of ideas. Especially if you aim to persuade your readers or get them to take action, just serve them a small but tasty meal, one they’ll remember fondly.

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